English rights

Just two months ago, in this space, we called on Premier Legault to fire Minister Responsible for the French Language Simon Jolin-Barrette. He had thrown another grenade into the language arms stockpile by announcing that he plans to present a bill this year to expand Bill 101.

Among the expansion is extending 101’s application to small businesses of 25-49 employees. Currently the language law applies to businesses of 50 or more employees for the internal conduct of written matters and communications. Also rumoured was that certain provisions of the law will be applied to education, specifically to English CEGEPs. Furthermore, that more inspectors will supervise the language of service in retail outlets.

The most damning aspects that have been mentioned in this expansion is that he intends to make Bill 101 applicable to federal jurisdictions including banks, insurance and media. That combined with a decrease in English services from government departments.

Now we raised no question as to whether this was Premier Legault’s idea and he used Jolin-Barrette to put up a trial balloon or whether it was the Minister’s idea. Clearly this government does send purring sounds to its nationalist wing.

But the initiative seemed to have quieted down when it soon became clear — even to Quebec — that an expansion into federal jurisdiction would be met with a prolonged court challenge. But the CAQ government is at it again.

In a case of “if you can’t get in through the door, try the window”, Minister for Canadian Relations and the Canadian Francophonie Sonia Lebel suggested last Thursday that the only constitutional protection for linguistic minorities should be for Francophones and that the protection for anglophones should be dropped and that Canada’s Official Languages Act be “modernized” to so reflect. It is amazing to realize that both Jolin-Barrette and Lebel are lawyers.

Put aside the discriminatory natures of both their initiatives, they know that each challenges the Canadian Constitution. And Lebel’s suggestion would require a change in the constitution that would necessitate 7 provinces agreeing representing 60% of the population of the country. For forty years no government — federal or provincial — has wanted to reopen a constitutional debate. It seems this one does.

Marlene Jennings, President of the QCGN, put it succinctly. She called Lebel’s suggestion a “non-starter.” She went on to state that, “Lebel is demanding that the government of Quebec have sole jurisdiction for linguistic planning and control on its territory and displace federal protection.” Greg Kelley, the Quebec Liberal critic for relations with English-speaking Quebecers, took aim directly at Legault saying, “It’s another example of François Legault’s autonomist strategy. He doesn’t have any interest in making the Canadian federation work.”

Lebel’s suggestion would leave English rights unprotected by Ottawa and totally open to Jolin-Barrette’s suggested restrictions. This government, as many others in recent Quebec history, doesn’t seem to get that Quebec is still part of Canada and that its laws apply.

LeBel went further saying,“...the federal Official Languages Act must recognize that the French language is the only official language in a minority situation in Canada.” In Montreal island where the population is 50.3% non-francophone, we should be alarmed. And the 1 million non-Francophones in Quebec must demand that Ottawa make it clear and unconditional that federal jurisdiction is sacrosanct and that the constitutional protection for the English minority will never be ceded to Quebec.

Raymond Théberge, the Commission of Official Languages, noted in his own statement that the Official Languages Act “protects the rights of all Canadian to receive services in the language of their choice. I truly understand the concerns of Quebec’s English-speaking minority. And Federal Minister for Official Languages Mélanie Joly said,” Defending the rights of francophone minorities outside Quebec and defending the rights of the anglophone minority in Quebec is always a priority for our government,” Joly said. The Trudeau government must be held on that pledge.

Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey said at the time that Jolin-Barrette’s suggestions were “reprehensible” because the government is trying to create two classes of citizens and carries the potential for an equality and expression challenge. “I’d like to know how it protects French to tell somebody you can’t have your services in English,” Grey asked. To paraphrase his question to Jolin-Barrette, we would ask Lebel “How does it protect French minorities more by making protection for English minorities less?”

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